Ng Chun Pui v Lee Chuen Tat
Privy Council (Hong Kong)
Citations:  RTR 298; (1988) 132 SJ 1244; (The Times, 25 May 1988);  CLY 2580.
The first defendant was a coach driver. The second defendant was the first defendant’s employer. The first defendant was driving a coach on the outer lane of a dual carriageway. Suddenly, he crossed the central reservation without warning. As a result, the coach collided with a bus in the inner lane of the eastbound carriageway. One person died, and several more were injured. The claimants, those injured and the estate of the person killed in the event, sued the defendants in negligence.
The claimants relied on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to establish that the first defendant breached their duty of care. They argued that the fact the accident happened at all was sufficient evidence of breach. The first defendant blamed the accident on an unidentified car, which he claimed had cut in front of the coach and forced the first defendant to serve to avoid it.
The trial judge concluded that the defendants were negligent. He argued that this was because the burden of proof had shifted to them after the claimant established res ipsa loquitur, and the defendants had failed to discharge that burden. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeal of Hong Kong disagreed, reversing the decision and finding that the claimant had failed to establish negligence. The claimant appealed to the Privy Council.
- What is the legal and evidential effect of establishing res ipsa loquitur?
The Privy Council held in favour of the defendant. The defendant was not under a legal burden to disprove the claimant’s case once res ipsa loquitur is established. It was enough that they adduced evidence which made it no longer reasonable to presume negligence from the fact of the accident. The defendant had adduced evidence that they were acting reasonably in response to a serious emergency, which was enough.
This Case is Authority For…
Res ipsa loquitur does not reverse the burden of proof. In appropriate cases it allows the claimant to establish a prima facie case by asking the court to infer from the fact the accident happened that the defendant must have been negligent.
If the defendant adduces no evidence, then the claimant will succeed. This is not because the burden has shifted to the defendant, but because they will have failed to rebut the inference. However, if the defendant adduces evidence which makes it no longer reasonable to assume negligence purely from the fact that the accident occurred, the claimant no longer has a prima facie case.
The Privy Council stressed that a person in an emergency situation cannot be judged by too critical and exacting a standard.